The story, originally posted on the News’ “Tax Watchdog” blog by Robert Snell, has a few problems.
The first, of course, is its headline. There are a lot of adjectives or adverb-adjective combinations that come to mind in describing Reade Seligmann. “Falsely accused” is the obvious selection. “Widely praised” is another. But “controversial” seems like a highly unusual choice. What exactly is “controversial” about Seligmann?
The controversial headline selection is particularly problematic in that the dubious word choice appeared not in the posting by Snell, whose headline was fair and highlighted the denial by Seligmannn’s attorney. Instead, the controversial selection of the adjective “controversial” appeared in an item (with the same text, and linked above) that appeared on the News’ website. I e-mailed the News’ metro editor and web editor to ask why they chose “controversial” to describe Seligmann; neither replied.
The Snell posting itself suffers from two problematic elements. The first comes in its use of the “reportedly” standard. Snell concludes his article with the following line: “[Seligmann] reportedly is studying law at Emory University in Atlanta.” I did a Google search of “Reade Seligmann Emory” a few hours after the Snell posting appeared; the two items that most prominently appeared were posts from the Liestoppers board and the Free Republic board. Snell considered these items credible enough to use in his article, with a “reportedly” tag. So his article provides an example of the standards for which he uses a “reportedly” standard. (I don’t see any problem with how Snell handled this matter.)
Snell’s post—a he-said, IRS-said item that to any neutral reader would almost certainly leave the impression that the IRS is right—hinges on a quote that he obtains from an expert, “Tax lawyer Jeffrey Freeman of Birmingham, Mich.” According to Freeman, as paraphrased by Snell, “someone would have to make about $20 million in one year to generate a $6.5 million tax bill.”
Yet by the posting’s “reportedly” standard, Snell’s expert would seem to have undercut the lien’s validity. In July 2007, Bernie Reeves of Metro reported, “The settlement paid by Duke University to the three families of the falsely accused lacrosse team members — estimated to be around $18 million — follows on the heels of similar deals.”
The settlement amount, of course, was confidential. But Reeves’ item would seem to be a credible enough source—by a “reportedly” standard, in any case—for use by the News. Passing along the information from Metro would have tilted Snell’s story from its he-said, IRS-said approach to a story that the IRS might well be wrong. (The amount of the lien would have exceeded the amount of Seligmann’s individual settlement by around $500,000, producing a tax rate on the settlement of more than 100 percent.) And if the IRS made a mistake, Snell’s post is a much different story—something to the effect of “Falsely Accused ex-Duke Player Still Getting Unfair Treatment.”
I e-mailed Snell to ask him why he used the “reportedly” standard to include a throw-away item about Seligmann and Emory but declined to use the “reportedly” standard to include an item that would seem quite germane to his story. He said he wasn’t aware of the Raleigh Metro item, nor a vaguer comment by anti-lacrosse extremist (but very well-connected) Tim Tyson that seemed to confirm the Metro report. He was kind enough to respond (twice), and I appreciate his candor, but the problem with the exclusion remains.
Snell’s second problematic element: his post (accurately) reported that the lien notice was sent not to Seligmann but to a New York accountant named David Weiss. Snell paraphrases Seligmann’s civil case attorney, Richard Emery, to the effect that Weiss was someone “with whom the Seligmann family consulted several years ago.”
Why the IRS would send a tax lien notice not to the subject of the lien but to someone with whom the subject’s “family consulted” Snell doesn’t say. I suspect that most fair-minded readers would come away with the impression that Weiss prepared Seligmann’s taxes (I certainly did)—even though the article never actually makes such a claim. And if, in fact, Weiss did no such work, then the story is a much different one—something to the effect of why the IRS would be sending a huge tax lien to an accountant that actually hadn’t been responsible for preparing Seligmann’s taxes.
There’s something “controversial” going on here. But the controversy doesn’t involve Seligmann.
*--modified slightly for clarity, and to point out Richard Emery had already gone on the record, publicly, to deny the validity of the lien before Cummings accused Seligmann or "somebody" representing him of being a tax cheat.